Bowser’s primary win forced Catania to come up with more than just calling his opponent a crook. In his Dupont Circle campaign office, he lays it out. Bowser, per Catania, is a part of “The Machine”—the developers, cronies, and contractors who prosper whether it’s Vince Gray or Adrian Fenty on the sixth floor of the Wilson Building.
Campaign literature takes the metaphor further. In one image, a cheery rowhouse with Catania signs contrasts with Bowser’s D.C., a grim land that consists of rolls of cash, a literal machine, and lightning bolts. In a handbill, Catania’s campaign turns Bowser into a marionette with strings pulled by shadowy forces.
The attacks don’t exactly land. For one thing, Catania declines to name who makes up The Machine. For another, he’s not much of a populist. Until recently, Catania worked as an attorney for M.C. Dean, a major city contractor. He’s quick to say he didn’t have anything to do with the company’s business with the District, and recused himself from votes involving its business.
Ben Young, the longtime Catania retainer whose jump from his boss’s Council office to his exploratory committee in February signaled that Catania would really run, claims he doesn’t care which opponent Catania faces. Per Young, no one who could run has a more impressive record than his boss’.
He has a point. Ahead of the primary, Bowser memorably snapped at a reporter from the blog DCist when she was pressed to name more than one accomplishment from her time on the Council. Catania, meanwhile, can draw on nearly two decades of work on the Council—from introducing the District’s gay marriage law, to trying to prop up United Medical Center to ensure hospital service for the District’s poorest wards, to his recent success passing a raft of education bills.
Catania frequently compares his record with Bowser’s, who runs a Council committee that covers housing issues. Even as the affordable housing stock shrinks, Bowser has passed only a ceremonial resolution on housing through her committee. “She’s abandoned the field, as she has done on literally every issue involving the human condition,” Catania says.
Campaign bluster aside, though, it obviously does matter who Catania faces. That isn’t lost on Marie Drissel, an activist who’s known Catania since his caustic remarks at Kalorama neighborhood meetings won her over. Drissel knows unlikely campaigns, having been one of the masterminds behind Mayor Anthony Williams’ political career.
“I think the Muriel Bowser people are right,” Drissel says. “It’s really going to be difficult.”
A March Post poll taken before the Democratic primary showed Bowser clobbering Catania in the general election, 56 to 23 percent. A poll commissioned more recently by the Catania campaign shows that the gap between has narrowed dramatically, to what Catania calls “the high single digits.” (The campaign provided me with the poll on the condition that I didn’t describe the findings more specifically; draw your own conclusions about what that indicates about the state of the race.)
Bowser has conducted her post-primary campaign so far on the principle that David Catania doesn’t exist. She refuses to debate him until September, although her campaign keeps pushing forward the day when they’ll agree to meet. At her birthday party last week, though, Bowser took a different tack. Before blowing out the candles on a cake colored in her campaign’s characteristic green, Bowser ran down a litany of complaints against Catania, all without naming him: that he’s a Republican in disguise, that he’s not a strong enough supporter of labor, that Mayor Catania would be “cussing” people out instead of listening to them.
While Bowser shied away from naming her opponent, Bowser spokesman Joaquin McPeek isn’t so reluctant. McPeek points to Catania’s opposition to city deals for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Nationals Park as a sign that he’s on “the wrong side of history.”
“I think it’s ironic that someone who has sat on the Council for 17 years and is one of the longest serving councilmembers in D.C. history is calling himself anti-establishment,” McPeek says.
Indeed, Catania hasn’t had any trouble ingratiating himself with at least part of the District’s political establishment. In his most recent re-election campaign, Catania received donations from a who’s-who of District powerbrokers, including large developers and a corporation owned by Tony Cheng, a Chinatown businessman who plead guilty earlier this year to a scheme to obtain cab licenses illegally. Unlike fellow reform-minded Councilmember Tommy Wells, Catania hasn’t abstained from taking sometimes hard-to-trace corporate campaign contributions for his mayoral bid.
Like most other District pols, Catania’s bids also benefitted from Jeff Thompson’s network of illicit straw donors, taking in at least $15,750 from Thompson-connected sources in previous Council runs. Catania isn’t one of the politicians who Thompson or prosecutors say knew about the criminal activity behind the money, though. He’s also quick to point out that Thompson made a poor investment—Catania was the most vocal critic on the Council of a District government settlement with one of Thompson’s firms, a deal that is now under federal investigation.
Despite leaving the job more than a year ago, Catania’s work at M.C. Dean continues to pick away at his reformer bona fides. Catania says he avoided even talking about District politics with his boss while he worked at the $240,000 position as the company’s vice president for corporate strategy (though there’s no real way for anyone else to verify that independently). The image of a councilmember working for a company with District contracts still rankles some like Councilmember Vincent Orange, who’s called for a ban on such second jobs.
In the crowd at Bowser’s party, one absence from the party tent loomed: Gray. While most of Bowser’s defeated opponents have endorsed her and fallen in line, Gray has been curiously reluctant to acknowledge defeat. After his loss, he dawdled on making a congratulatory call to Bowser, and he continues to waffle on whether he’ll endorse her. While there are plenty of reasons Bowser would want to distance herself from the target of a federal investigation, Gray’s sore loser feelings offer an unusual chance for Catania to pick up more votes—and to increase his share of the African-American vote.
Catania makes an unlikely second choice for Gray supporters. As the federal investigation into Thompson’s shadow campaign donations in 2010 surfaced, Catania was the first councilmember to call on him to resign, even declaring the mayor a “joke.” Still, that hasn’t stopped some Gray supporters from joining him.
Barbara Lang, the well-connected former head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and one of Gray’s most loyal supporters, found herself without a cause when her friend went down in April.
Lang met with both Catania and Bowser after the primary. Surprisingly for someone whose livelihood depends in part on making the right guess on elections, she picked Catania. If Catania can combine his support for bailing out Ward 8’s United Medical Center with an appeal to voters whose bad feelings towards Bowser overwhelm their Democratic loyalty, he could cobble together more votes in Gray’s power base in Wards 7 and 8.
Lang claims that there are secret Catania supporters remaining in Gray’s scattered camp. The undeclared Catania supporters are too afraid of angering Bowser’s lieutenants, according to Lang.
“I decided to come out of the closet,” Lang says.